Historical Markers
PSFS Building Historical Marker
Mouse over for marker text

PSFS Building

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
1200 Market St., Philadelphia

Dedication Date:
November 11, 2005

Behind the Marker

Color photograph of the exterior of the building.
PSFS Building, 12th and Market Streets, Philadelphia PA, 2006.
The onset of the Great Depression put an end to the great economic and construction booms of the 1920s, but it did not end dreams of greatness. In 1931, Americans took pride in the completion of the Empire State Building in lower Manhattan. While the world was marveling at the world's tallest building, which had been constructed with steel milled and fabricated in Pittsburgh, the Philadelphia Saving Fund Society (PSFS), the nation's oldest savings bank, was proceeding with its own construction of a skyscraping corporate headquarters of a radical new design.

Completed in 1932, the PSFS building at 12th and Market Streets in Philadelphia was the first American skyscraper constructed in the sleek, utilitarian International Style. One of the most influential buildings ever constructed in the Keystone state, it would be hailed by the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 1969 as the "Building of the Century."
Exterior color photograph of PAFA
The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, SW corner of Broad and Cherry Sts., Philadelphia,...

In the early 1900s, Pennsylvania architects favored an eclectic style of architecture that mixed a broad range of historical styles with Greek statues, Roman columns, and other historical ornamentation. The most famous of the city's architects, Frank Furness (1839-1912), was a master of the style, which still amazes and delights visitors to the Furness designed markerPennsylvania Academy of Fine Art building, which opened in 1871.

When PSFS decided in the 1920s to construct a new corporate headquarters, the building committee, led by PSFS president James M. Willcox, was determined to build a structure that would represent its past greatness and future leadership. Willcox selected a bold, modern design submitted by George Howe (1886-1955) and William Lescaze (1896-1969).

After becoming the youngest partner of the Melor and Meigs firm in 1916, Howe had designed two branch offices for PSFS in the mid-1920s, then grown tired of the conventional designs produced by his firm. His new partner, Swiss modernist architect William Lescaze, had left Europe in 1920 for the opportunities offered in New York.
Head and shoulders portrait of Howe, wearing a suit, jacket and vest, dress shirt and tie.
Architect George Howe, circa 1935.

At the time, most skyscrapers, including the Empire State Building, had rectangular windows that punched through heavy brick and stone walls. But Howe and Lescaze's plan called for a sleek and streamlined 27-story building in which identical glass-walled floors of office space would wrap around a steel skeleton.

The most radical part of their design was a service tower rising the height of the building that formed a T-shaped spine. It would also be the first building of its size to be fully air-conditioned year-round.

On the first level, the architects placed shops, above which they proposed three floors devoted to the business functions of the bank. On the top they placed a luxurious executive suite. To match their sleek, ornament-free building, the architects also designed all the furniture, hardware, and fixtures.

The hardest element to sell to the building committee was a proposed twenty-seven-foot red neon sign spelling out "PSFS" on top of the building, which the committee considered undignified. Asked by a vice-president of the firm constructing the building if he knew what the Pennsylvania Railroad's "POV" sign in Newark stood for, Willcox said no, but that he was always curious about it. "Let's make everyone curious about PSFS," was the builder's winning reply.

Exterior, black and white, photograph
PSFS Building, 12th and Market Streets, Philadelphia PA, circa 1936.
Despite the national economy's ongoing collapse after 1929, PSFS proceeded with construction. Using the finest materials - considerably less expensive than they had been in the 1920s- the Fuller Construction Company completed the building for $7,420,942.37, a significant savings over the $12,500,000 cost estimate from 1929.

Opened on August 1, 1932, the PSFS building drew strong opinions from both friends and foes. While a writer in the Sunday Transcript (December 1931) insisted that "[n]ever has such an ugly building been perpetrated," editor Alfred J. Barr of Shelter, A Magazine of Modern Architecture, found the PSFS Building "a monument to the true persistence and artistic integrity."
An entire block with three story  brick buildings.
flip zoom
The Carl Mackley Apartments, M and Bristol Streets, Philadelphia, PA, January...

In 1932, the Museum of Modern Art featured the building in an exhibition promoting modern architecture, while a critic writing in the Sunday Dispatch (October 1932) called it "barbaric," "repellent," "stupid," "hideous," and "utterly destitute of the faintest comeliness." Celebrated architect Frank Lloyd Wright was no kinder, denouncing the International style as "neither international nor a style." (In 1936, Wright would revive his career with completion of markerFallingwater.)

In the long run, Howe proved right in his prediction that others "will see in it beauties marker they had not suspected." Other architects soon followed the precedent set by the PSFS Building. In 1934, the Hosiery Workers Union commissioned Polish architect Oskar Stonorov (1905-1970) to design the Carl Mackley Houses, the first American apartment building constructed in the International Style.

In 1940, Howe formed a partnership with Louis Kahn (1901-1974), who would rise to international prominence in the 1950s and 1960s with modernist designs that included the Yale University Art Gallery and the Richards Medical Research Building at the University of Pennsylvania.

In 1946, PSFS permitted the owners of WCAU-TV to construct a 256-foot transmission tower atop the building. This increased the total height of the building to 737 feet, technically breaking the long-standing gentlemen's agreement that no architect would build higher than the statue of William Penn on City Hall by 200 feet. After filing for bankruptcy in 1992, the Philadelphia Saving Fund Society became part of the Mellon Bank Company. In 1997, the Loews Corporation bought the PSFS Building, which reopened in April 2000 as the Loews Philadelphia Hotel.
Back to Top